In a voyage lasting 40 days and conquering approximately 3 500 unmanned miles at sea, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship arrived in North America in Halifax, Nova Scotia on June 5, 2022.

Following two years of design, construction and AI model training, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) was officially launched in September 2020. Fast forward to 5 June 2022, and the ship completed an historic transatlantic voyage from Plymouth, UK to its North American arrival in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

With no human captain or onboard crew, MAS is the first self-directed autonomous ship with technology that is scalable and extendible to traverse the Atlantic Ocean.

MAS was designed and built by marine research non-profit ProMare with IBM acting as lead technology and science partner, with IBM automation, AI and edge computing technologies powering the ship’s artificial intelligence (AI) captain to guide the vessel and make real-time decisions while at sea.

On board the ship, there are six AI-powered cameras, more than 30 sensors and 15 edge devices, all of which input into actionable recommendations for the AI captain to interpret and analyse.

This makes it possible for the AI captain to adhere to maritime law while making crucial split-second decisions, like rerouting itself around hazards or marine animals, all without human interaction or intervention.

The AI saptain has learned from data, postulates alternative choices, assesses and optimizes decisions, manages risk, and refines its knowledge through feedback, all while maintaining the highest ethical standards – which is similar to how machine learning is applied across industries like transportation, financial services, and healthcare. In addition, there’s a transparent record of the AI captain’s decision-making process that can help us humans understand why the captain made certain decisions… transparency that is all too important in these heavily regulated industries.

By Rob High, IBM Fellow, vice-president and chief technology officer: networking and edge computing